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Laurie Swami

Laurie Swami

President & CEO, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is taking an innovative, industry-leading approach to the safe, long-term management of nuclear waste.

Nuclear fuel has powered Canadian communities for decades. As a low-carbon energy source, it’s increasingly being sought by governments to help fight climate change — the Government of Canada has made it clear that there’s no credible path to net-zero energy by 2050 without nuclear in the mix.

Yet whenever the topic of nuclear comes up, someone inevitably asks about the “problem” of waste. The reality is that all energy sources create waste. Fossil fuels enter the atmosphere and industrial waste goes to landfill. In fact, nuclear is the only energy industry that manages its waste throughout its entire lifecycle.

While once thought of as a barrier, today managing that waste is an industry success story. Nuclear waste is safely stored now and there’s international scientific consensus about how to safely manage it over the very long term.

Canada’s plan solves the problem today, instead of passing it on to future generations.

Investing in our future

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is responsible for implementing Canada’s plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel. Headed by Laurie Swami, one of only three women CEOs in the Canadian nuclear industry, the NWMO is planning to build a deep geological repository that uses a series of engineered and natural barriers to contain and isolate used nuclear fuel. While used nuclear fuel is currently being safely stored at above-ground facilities, this approach is widely recognized as being inappropriate over the long term.

“Canada’s plan solves the problem today, instead of passing it on to future generations,” says Swami. “This is one of the key priorities we hear from Canadians and Indigenous peoples when seeking input on our work.”

Canada’s plan represents a $26-billion environmental infrastructure project over its 150-year lifecycle. That means investments across the country, including significant contributions in the siting areas, as well as many high-value jobs in the short term and into the next century.

A progressive approach to partnership

One of the NWMO’s key commitments is that it will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts, where the municipality, First Nation and Métis communities, and others in the area are working together to implement Canada’s plan.

“We’ve only worked in regions where a community voluntarily expressed interest in exploring their potential to host the project,” says Swami. “Twenty-two communities raised their hands. It was nothing short of extraordinary.”

Through progressive social and technical studies, that list was narrowed down to the Ignace area and South Bruce, both in Ontario. The NWMO expects to select a site in 2023. By actively collaborating with local leaders and interested citizens, the NWMO is taking an industry-leading, consent-based approach to exploring partnerships and willingness.

This diagram shows a conceptual layout for the surface facilities, and the underground services area and placement rooms in the deep geological repository in a site with sedimentary rock. The design will continue to become more detailed as the project progresses.

Building a foundation of respect

Innovation is truly at the core of the NWMO’s work. The organization is using best-in-class environmental practices and Indigenous knowledge to ensure that the project protects people and the environment, essentially indefinitely. And by interweaving cutting-edge western science with Indigenous knowledge, the project is setting new standards for research, community engagement, and Indigenous collaboration.

“Listening to Indigenous peoples has always been key to our work, and in 2019 we took an important step forward by formalizing our reconciliation policy,” says Swami.

That meant developing an annual implementation plan to measure and publicly report on its reconciliation journey, which is building a foundation of recognition and respect through ongoing educational opportunities. The NWMO continues to travel this path with Indigenous peoples, with strong guidance from a Council of Elders and Youth.

Now, based on its experience implementing Canada’s plan, the NWMO has been asked by the federal government to develop an integrated strategy that addresses any remaining gaps in plans for other radioactive waste streams — specifically, some of Canada’s low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. While this waste is all safely managed today, some of it still requires plans for the very long term.

The NWMO is breaking new ground, both figuratively and literally, and playing a vital role in environmental stewardship. It’s exciting to see such a world-leading example right here in Canada.

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